Version tested: PC
Expectation is terrible thing. Its ugly sister, hype, is even worse. Broken Age, the first adventure game from genre pioneer Tim Schafer in 16 years, the game that blew open the doors for crowd-funded gaming, groans under these twin burdens.
Best, then, to just judge the game for what it is, separate from its inherited legacy and scrutinised production history. It's just that, under those criteria, what you find is a nice but largely unremarkable adventure game. It's a game that makes no terrible missteps, yet that's largely because it never attempts anything bold enough to risk landing flat on its face.
What you get is two stories in one, each following a frustrated young soul breaking free from parental and social constraints. Vella is on the verge of womanhood, and is due to be sacrificed to Mog Chothera, a gigantic monster, as part of a traditional festival known as the Maiden Feast that will keep the village of Sugar Bunting safe for another year. Everyone seems quite OK with this fate - even her parents, who are proud she's been chosen for such an honour. Only her crotchety grandfather, who still remembers when the townsfolk were feared warriors rather than pacifist bakers, kicks against this wilfully submissive stance. Vella, of course, opts to choose her own path and the bulk of her story involves finding a way to kill Mog Chothera.
The flipside to Vella's story involves Shay, a young man who has been raised from a baby as the sole human occupant of a spaceship overseen by a relentlessly cheery computer that acts as his mother. His entire life is an infantilised nightmare of childish breakfast cereal, smothering affection and a trio of completely faked and tediously safe "missions" populated by soft toys. Like Vella, Shay dreams of breaking out of this unhealthy routine, and when he decides to change the script he opens the door to a world where real choices - and real peril - await. He throws himself into the role of a brave adult, but his own naïve hubris is perhaps the greatest danger of all.
These are two strong story concepts, each exploring rich dramatic themes that will resonate for anyone who is, or has been, a teenager. It's a coming of age game, but one that avoids the usual clichés. It also hints at interesting gender themes, from Vella's refusal to live down to her family's damsel-in-distress expectations, and Shay's reckless rush to define his masculinity by doing something, anything, as long it doesn't involve listening to "Mother".
This narrative hook is baited with some absolutely gorgeous visuals. Many games have opted for the painted look, but few have done it with this much grace and style. Even though the parallel stories take place in radically different settings they feel connected aesthetically, and it's a constant joy to discover a new location, a new character or just to watch these characters move around.
Schafer's script is a gem, funny but in a gentler and more heartfelt way than his earliest adventure games. There's little sarcasm or irony here. It's shrewdly cast, too. Elijah Wood and Masasa Moyo are both superb as Shay and Vella, and even Jack Black tones down his shtick to suit the tone. Combined with the lush graphics, it means that during the longer cut-scenes it's like watching a particularly beautiful and charming animated movie - the sort of thing that would be getting all kinds of buzz if it were headed to cinemas rather than monitors.
Sadly, the game itself never quite lives up to the strength of its premise or the wonder of its visuals. This is a lovely, warm game, but one with very little bite. Your interactions are limited to a simple context-sensitive one click input, all objects of interest are easily spotted, and the inventory is such that you'll never be left scratching your head. The point-and-click adventures of old had issues that have to be addressed in the modern day, of course, with their obtuse puzzles and inexplicable inventory items, but Broken Age swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.
There's no hint system, but then the game really doesn't need one. Character dialogue too often spells out exactly what needs to be done, and item descriptions ram the point home. When you've been told over and over that a particular object is heavy - too heavy for this, too heavy for that, be careful it's heavy - even the least attentive player will be primed to look for a weight-based solution long before the puzzle even arrives.
In fact, I struggled most at the start of the game precisely because I was over-thinking the puzzles, dismissing the obvious solutions and clumsy hints as red herrings designed to obscure something more ingenious underneath. Nope. It's as simple as it looks, and any reasonably experienced player - surely the key audience for a game with Broken Age's heritage - will glide to the end in a few hours with very little trouble.
Fans will be forgiven for expecting something a little more chewy, a little more experimental, from a developer who made his name by turning adventure games upside down
In the unlikely event that you do get stuck, you're free to switch between the storylines whenever you want, but this throws up its own problems. It's safe to say that Vella and Shay's plots do overlap, but the way in which they do - while clever - is so heavily foreshadowed in each strand that however you play through them, one side of the game can't help but act as a spoiler for the other. A stronger authorial voice, forcing the player to swap stories at the most dramatically effective points, would have helped the twists land more consistently.
Even without the expectation and hype of a fêted developer and a Kickstarter windfall, Broken Age would feel like a slight little thing. Had it arrived without fanfare, just another quirky Double Fine experiment in the vein of Stacking or Costume Quest, its surface charms might have been enough.
Disappointment? Underwhelming? Those criticisms are far too harsh for a game that is undeniably delightful to play, but they carry a sting of truth. Pleasant but undemanding, gorgeous but lacking in depth - fans will be forgiven for expecting something a little more chewy, a little more experimental, from a developer who made his name by turning adventure games upside down. Here's hoping Act 2 builds some gameplay muscle to go with the supermodel looks.
7 / 10